By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
The Road to the Kentucky
Derby takes an exciting turn this Saturday with the running of the 1 1/16-mile
Rebel S. (G2) at Oaklawn Park.
The last 20 years have seen
the Rebel rise steadily in prominence. Rebel winners Smarty Jones (2004) and
American Pharoah (2015) both went on to claim victory in the Kentucky Derby
(G1), while the Rebel purse has risen from $125,000 in 2003 to $1 million in
A strong field has lined up
for this year's Rebel. Several exciting sophomores are among the entries, and
it wouldn't be surprising to see the Kentucky Derby winner emerge from this
One of the most accomplished
entrants is #6 Reincarnate (7-2),
who was—until recently—trained by Bob Baffert, who has saddled eight Rebel
winners from 16 starters since 2010. Now conditioned by Baffert's former
assistant Tim Yakteen, Reincarnate enters the Rebel off a determined victory in
the one-mile Sham S. (G3) at Santa Anita, in which he led virtually all the way
to defeat next-out Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) winner Newgate by a neck.
Reincarnate has put together
a sharp series of workouts and has every chance to secure first prize under
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, but he's hardly the only viable win
contender in the Rebel field. #5 Giant
Mischief (5-2) is an exciting colt conditioned by red-hot trainer Brad Cox,
who has won four of the 11 Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers contested
since Jan. 1.
Giant Mischief went 2-for-2
sprinting as a juvenile, but arguably his most impressive performance was a
runner-up finish in the Remington Springboard Mile S. at Remington Park. Giant
Mischief broke poorly in the one-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifier and
raced in last place for half a mile. But from the half-mile marker to the
quarter pole, Giant Mischief gained five lengths with a gigantic outside rally,
running that quarter-mile section in approximately :24.10 seconds.
Giant Mischief had every
reason to falter after unleashing such an eye-catching midrace move, but
although he lost ground early in the homestretch, he re-rallied in the final
furlong to finish only 1 1/4 lengths behind the ground-saving winner
I think a case can be made
that Giant Mischief ran the best race in the Springboard Mile, so if he breaks
better in the Rebel, I expect him to deliver another strong showing. Four-time
Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz is picking up the mount, and Giant
Mischief enters off a pair of fast :59 4/5 five-furlong workouts at Fair
But as much as I like the
chances of Giant Mischief, he's not my pick to win the Rebel. My top choice is
actually Giant Mischief's stablemate #1
Verifying (2-1), a colt I've thought a lot of since he wired his debut
sprinting six furlongs at Saratoga last summer.
A son of 2018 Triple Crown
winner Justify out of the Repent mare Diva Delite, Verifying is a half-brother
to Midnight Bisou, a champion who won 13 graded stakes (including five Grade
1s) during her decorated career. Midnight Bisou proved stakes-caliber as a
juvenile but improved steadily with age, and I'm optimistic Verifying is
progressing down a similar path.
Verifying joined the Road to
the Kentucky Derby with a runner-up finish in the Champagne S. (G1) at Belmont
Park, after which he misfired with a sixth-place effort in the Breeders' Cup
Juvenile (G1). But after taking a couple months off, Verifying returned better
than ever in an allowance optional claimer on Jan. 14 at Oaklawn. Pace-pressing
tactics carried Verifying to a 5 1/4-length triumph in the one-mile contest,
and his performance was flattered when runner-up #4 Gun Pilot (8-1) and third-place finisher Two Eagles River came
right back to win against similar competition.
Verifying has trained
strongly for the Rebel, twice breezing five furlongs in :59 4/5 at Fair Grounds
in recent weeks. The dates, distances, and times of his workouts are identical
to the recent exercises posted by Giant Mischief, suggesting the two have been
working in company.
Building on that point, hot
jockey Florent Geroux (a 42% winner teaming up with Cox over the last two
months per Brisnet stats) is set to ride Verifying for the first time, even
though Geroux had previously been the rider of Giant Mischief. While conceding
that I might be reading too much into workout lines and jockey assignments, I
do wonder if Verifying is considered the top hope from Cox's barn this
I'd also like to give a
shout-out to Gun Pilot as a top-four contender. Following his runner-up finish
behind Verifying, Gun Pilot overcame a slightly troubled trip to win a one-mile
allowance optional claimer at Oaklawn by two lengths. The son of Gun Runner has
improved with every start for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and is
eligible to move forward again on Saturday.
2nd: Giant Mischief
4th: Gun Pilot
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in the Rebel?
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite.